By Peter Baker and Bill McAllister
An invigorated President Clinton disregarded impeachment threats yesterday and provoked a new fight with congressional Republicans over stalled spending bills, accusing them of neglecting their legislative duties amid the furor over the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation.
Clinton signed a temporary funding measure in the morning to keep the federal government open when the new fiscal year begins next week and spent the rest of the day chastising Congress for not completing its work. "By failing to meet its most basic governing responsibility, the Republican majority in Congress has its priorities wrong -- partisanship over progress, politics over people," he said.
The attack infuriated GOP leaders and came just hours before the House Judiciary Committee voted to release tens of thousands of pages from independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into Clinton's attempts to conceal his affair with Lewinsky during the Paula Jones lawsuit. Among the material to be made public are edited audiotapes of Linda R. Tripp's conversations with Lewinsky as well as grand jury testimony from Clinton confidant Vernon E. Jordan Jr., presidential secretary Betty Currie and others.
Even as the president was publicly scrapping with Republican leaders, his advisers were still hustling behind the scenes to broker a deal with Congress to head off impeachment proceedings based on Starr's report. Central to their strategy are new negotiations for a $500,000-plus financial settlement with Jones, who is appealing the dismissal of her suit. Any agreement could be reached in a matter of days, sources familiar with the talks said.
Getting rid of the threat posed by the Jones suit has emerged as a top priority among Clinton advisers who believe a deal with Congress may hinge on it. To craft a censure-based intermediary punishment for Clinton that would be acceptable to lawmakers, some advisers believe the president would have to admit that he lied in his Jan. 17 deposition in the Jones case when he denied having an affair with Lewinsky. But such a frank confession would pose considerable risk for Clinton that it would revive the Jones suit.
"He can't do that so long as the Paula Jones case is still out there, because the minute he does that it starts a row of dominoes falling that . . . . leads to a trial," said one person close to the White House. "You have to clear out the underbrush on Paula Jones."
Although the Jones case was dismissed on April 1, Clinton's attorney, Robert S. Bennett, and other advisers are worried that an admission of dishonesty could result not only in a court reinstating the lawsuit, but also possibly a default judgment against Clinton based on a finding of malicious abuse of process during the course of the case, the source said.
The two sides have not reached an accord yet. Jones's Dallas-based lawyers opened the talks about two weeks ago with a $1 million proposal that, for the first time since she filed the suit in 1994, no longer insisted that the president apologize for luring her to a Little Rock hotel room and exposing himself. Bennett countered this week with a $500,000 offer, though money does not appear to be the major concern for the Clinton team.
During public appearances yesterday, Clinton gave little appearance of a wounded politician seeking redemption from Congress. As he left for a three-day trip to Illinois, California and Texas devoted mostly to fund-raising, the president lashed out at Republicans for sending him only one of the 13 appropriations bills necessary to fund the government and for failing to enact much of the administration's agenda on education, health care and campaign finance.
"There are a few days left in the congressional session -- it's not too late," Clinton told an audience of elementary school students and civic leaders in an inner-city Chicago neighborhood of boarded-up, high-rise public housing projects.
Noting the home run battle between Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa and St. Louis Cardinal Mark McGwire, Clinton compared Congress's inaction to either ballplayer announcing he was quitting before the final games. "We'd think they lost it," Clinton said.
Senior Republicans bristled at the president's remarks, calling them a "gratuitous slap" for partisan purposes. "What he's trying to do is distract attention from his problems by putting the blame somewhere else," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters. "We need a president who is engaged, and he is not."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) added later in the day, "It is wonderful to watch the president, as he prepares to leave for a partisan fund-raiser, suggest that those of us who stayed in Washington to work on legislation are doing something partisan."
The president's increasing eagerness to start a rumble with Congress at the same time it is weighing whether to force him from office underscored the growing confidence at the White House that the political momentum has shifted back in his direction. White House strategists are encouraged that congressional Democrats appear to be rallying against GOP impeachment efforts because, they believe, Republicans have overplayed their hand.
Clinton advisers are almost itching for a fight over the appropriations bills, recalling that the last time the president and congressional Republicans had a budget showdown in 1995 it succeeded in reviving his political fortunes after the 1994 midterm elections and helped propel him to reelection.
"The Republicans may be walking into another government shutdown shootout and we won it last time," said a Democratic adviser to the White House. "It actually would be tonic for the soul," agreed a senior White House official.
The White House has rebounded this week in part by consolidating support among congressional Democrats who once were on the verge of abandoning Clinton after his admission that he "misled people, including even my wife" about his relationship with Lewinsky. With the release of most of the Starr evidence, many relieved Democrats on Capitol Hill have concluded there may be no more bombshells.
A sign that Starr's evidence on Lewinsky, at least by itself, may not be politically fatal for Clinton came from an unusual quarter yesterday when a senior House Republican suggested it was not enough to impeach the president.
"If all Starr has is what we've seen, I don't think the public is ready for" impeachment, said Rep. John Linder (Ga.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I have said all along that one party cannot impeach the other party's president" by itself.
But Linder suggested that a formal impeachment inquiry should be opened to other White House controversies, such as its improper handling of FBI files of Republicans. "Clinton has given us lots of areas to investigate," he told an audience at the Brookings Institution. "There is no shortage of scandals. In some ways, the Starr report has gotten in the way of the investigations that we need to be doing."
As Clinton tries to resolve his long fight with Jones, the decision to seek a settlement has won support from a wide range of advisers who once disagreed violently on how hard to fight her -- a reflection of the dramatically changed political landscape.
While Clinton still would not acknowledge propositioning Jones as she has alleged, aides and friends have concluded that the country would not be shocked even if they interpret his willingness to pay money as an admission that he did drop his pants and ask for oral sex. Even so, it could be a bitter pill for Clinton, who during his grand jury testimony broadcast this week railed against the Jones lawyers for waging a political campaign against him through a "bogus lawsuit."
As part of any settlement, sources said, the Clinton camp wants Jones to drop her appeal, now scheduled for oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minn., on Oct. 20; abandon any effort to ask U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to hold Clinton in contempt for making misleading statements during the deposition; and agree to seal all of the remaining secret evidence collected during the case.
A Jones representative said she decided to drop her longstanding demand for an apology because it was not realistic, but he insisted a large payment would make the same statement.
"Can you get an apology from the guy? Probably not," said John W. Whitehead, president of the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which is funding her case. "What Paula wants is to for him to be held accountable. If you get a substantial settlement, it negates his statement that the case was bogus . . . and you can infer that the facts are true. And in the last seven months, she's been vindicated."
Still, there are complicating factors, including an $800,000 lien placed against any proceeds from the suit by Jones's previous legal team. "We're first in line," said Washington attorney Joseph Cammarata. "I'm always willing to listen to a reasonable offer. But I hope she gets a lot of money."
McAllister reported from Chicago. Staff writers David S. Broder, Juliet Eilperin and Helen Dewar contributed to this report in Washington.
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